Sights and Sounds: A Gen Con Travel Guide

Written by Peter Lane on . Posted in Magic Culture

Sights and Sounds: A Gen Con Travel Guide

Peter Lane

Twin Cities deck brewer Pete Lane is better known by those online as "pandafarmer." Playing Magic since 1996, Pete grew up a board gamer and took this natural love of gaming to a new level as an adult by being a playtester for Fantasy Flight Games classics including Doom, Descent, Twilight Imperium and Arkham Horror. Not one to chase Pro Tour dreams on his own, Pete enjoys offering sage advice to rising local players and building decks with others online.

Called the “Best Four Days of Gaming,” Gen Con is one of those events any self respecting nerd has on their bucket list. About 40,000 people converge on the Indiana Convention Center in mid August each year for the event, which is located downtown Indianapolis near Lucas Oil Stadium. Comparable in scope to Dragon Con, Indianapolis embraces the event as a big tourist draw and even local businesses get into the act. It’s a wild celebration of all things table-top, from RPGs to European board games, and Magic is no exception. With multiple formats firing every hour, Pastimes Games hosts all the Magic events for Gen Con this year. If you’re planning on attending, or just aren’t sure what Gen Con is all about, here is a quick guide to all the action.

GETTING THERE

Hotel rooms near the Convention Center are usually booked up far in advance of Gen Con, and usually are asking top dollar for the rooms they have left. It’s more than likely you’ll have to find a cheaper hotel outside of the downtown area, or on the other side of town. If you’re flying in, check if your hotel has a shuttle running to and from the airport. If you’re driving into town, be aware Indianapolis has begun renaming exits, so GPS information might be incorrect.

Arrive to Gen Con early to get the best parking spots, and plan to bring extra cash to park in the nearby ramps and lots for the prime spots. I’ve heard that if you show your Gen Con badge, some nearby ramps offer a special rate, but even with discounts it’s not unusual to pay between $10 to $25 to park all day. In previous years there was also an option to “reserve” a spot directly with the Indiana Convention Center. Call them at (317) 262-3400 to see if this option is available for 2012. Otherwise one could brave the public bus system if you are used to doing so at home. Fishers and Carmel routes both make stops at the ICC. Make sure you know the times when each bus should arrive so you know when they stop running each night. For those driving in, one of the best kept secrets is a little lot two blocks of the Convention Center on South Street. I’ve heard rumors of it being as cheap as $5 a day, but no promises that this year will have the same special.

GETTING IN

Gen Con badges have shipped for pre-paid individuals already, but that doesn’t stop someone from purchasing a badge at the door or paying ahead and picking it up at Will Call. A four day pass is $80, but you can also pay $50 if you plan on just coming for one day. Be aware that this is a popular feature that many nearby gamers use, so Will Call lines can end up being a headache. Because of this issue, this year for the first time, Gen Con is offering an “all night” Will Call on Wednesday starting at noon. This will dramatically cut down on lines Thursday, and is a nice feature for those who are planning on driving in late Wednesday and wish to sleep in the following morning. Sunday is also known as “Family Day,” with a discounted pass only valid on that final day of the Convention.

In addition to the entry fee, most events at Gen Con require “event tickets.” Any scheduled event requires these tickets to help the organizers prepare in advance while keeping the gaming experience optimal for all players. But if you see an event listed as “sold out,” fear not. Because of the sheer size of Gen Con, it’s not uncommon for attendees to bite off more than they can chew. Many events will have “no show” participants and allow for someone who didn’t pre-purchase a ticket to play. These “generic tickets” cost $2 each and grant you admission to any event at the Convention providing they have space. Each event has a different ticket requirement, so look ahead and buy as many generic tickets equal to the entry fee of that particular event ($12 = six generic tickets). Always arrive a bit early and talk to the person running the event. It is likely they’ll know how many spaces are open, and after waiting for everyone to show up for 5 to 15 minutes, they will likely grant anyone with a generic ticket to fill empty spots. If you are holding a specialized ticket for an event and find yourself unable to attend, you can trade these tickets for generics at any ticket booth.

Be aware that all Magic events require tickets. It’s a smart idea to keep a few generic tickets handy so you can jump into a draft pod or attend a larger event without having to run to the nearest ticket booth. Pastime Games fires scheduled events each hour in multiple formats, as well as holding single-elimination queues of Drafts, Constructed and Sealed that “fire” once eight people have signed up (much like at larger Magic events such as PTQs and GPs).

For Magic players, a highlight of the Convention will be the Gen Con Championship. Thirty-two specially marked events (in multiple formats) are listed as “Gen Con Championship Qualifiers.” In these events, you play for prizes as well as an invitation to the grand event awarded to the winner. Those lucky 32 players with invites will compete at 9 a.m. Sunday for the title of Gen Con Champion of 2012. The winner of a single-elimination draft is awarded a “free ride” for Gen Con 2013. Your badge, hotel, and Magic events for next year’s Gen Con will all be paid for if you win!

Also watch for “Foil Set” events, where the winner gets a foil set of M13 as the prize, and the runner up gets a non-foil set. Otherwise Modern, Standard, Two Headed Giant, Planechase, Commander, Draft and Legacy are all represented multiple times over the convention.

GETTING AROUND

One thing that helps Gen Con feel like such a “paradise” for gamers is that it’s nestled in an area of downtown Indianapolis that feels a bit separate from the rest. Gen Con events spread out beyond the convention center itself, onto outdoor pavilions, nearby hotel meeting rooms, and even food courts, in an area that covers about one square mile. It creates the feeling that you’re living in a bit of a Geek-themed bubble for four days.

Everything is pretty spread out, and there really is no “I’ll be right back” at this Convention. The act of going to your room to pick up your deck will take a lot longer than you will expect. Crowds, lines, distractions, getting turned around, and misjudging distance can be a trap. You may be staying at a “hotel three blocks away,” but it becomes a longer process once you factor in the four blocks you’re going to have to walk through the Convention Center just to get outside. Be prepared by knowing exactly where your events are and how to get there. Pay attention to the event schedules and write down what you’re most interested in experiencing. You may not be able to attend every event that you want, but knowing when the next event starts will help you justify sitting out when you need a break. On the plus side, if you miss your event due to misjudging time, chances are something else you would like starts within the hour.

(NOT) GETTING SLOWED, ROBBED

Along with your decks and other gaming tools, make sure to pack things like pens, aspirin, water, phone chargers and important medicines in your backpack. The nearest place for “cheap” supplies is a CVS several blocks from the Convention Center, and nothing quite makes a miserable sickness worse so than having to walk a mile in the heat to find Tylenol. It isn’t a bad idea to pick up the essentials before you get into town to avoid paying hotel convenience store prices. Same goes for beer and party supplies. If you’re going to “play hard,” the convention is expensive enough without paying extra for these types of things. Always review what’s in your backpack the each morning before you leave, to make sure you take stock and have everything you need for that individual day.

Packing a “day pack” also leads to an extra step you might not think twice about at a local event. You will be tired, carrying extra weight, thinking about the next tournament, or trying to make a trade happen. You set down your huge backpack in a chair next to you, or on the floor. Next thing you know, it’s gone and the guy who took it blends in with the crowd.

Last year it was heartbreaking reading about several Magic players’ misfortune and the mind-blowing gall that the professional-grade thieves presented. But it’s important to note that an event this size provides opportunities for these goons. Some of these guys use teamwork while taking advantage of the distractions around you. One thing that might not seem so obvious is to NOT bring trades with you. Get the cards you need beforehand and only carry the primary decks that you need to play your events. If your backpack does get nabbed, your loss is minimal compared to having to replace three binders of every card in your collection that you brought “just in case.”

If you need to have everything with you for the Con, keep it at your hotel room or car trunk. The pain of losing all your cards outweighs that of missing one of many Standard events because you had to walk back to your room. This always seems like a no brainer, but you always hear of multiple thefts from people who “just looked away for a second.” Last year, one guy’s deckbox disappeared right off of a table when he bent down to grab his binder.

GETTING FED

Finding food is one of the biggest challenges at Gen Con. Not because there is a lack of great places to eat, but because you almost feel like you can’t take the time to make a quick run to the local restaurant, which is no doubt packed with other hungry gamers. The Convention Center has quick food, but it’s pricey and not always quality.

Thankfully, local food trucks are going to be lining Georgia Street near the Convention Center. Twenty trucks will be serving fresh and tasty food and snacks to convention goers all weekend long! In shifts of 10 trucks (lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. until late), you’ll be able to enjoy a wide variety of flavors all day. Gyros, pizza, Indian, Italian, fried snacks, and even Korean BBQ will help provide a varied diet for convention attendees while hopefully helping make other dinner options less crowded. Make sure you bring cash to keep the lines moving, but some trucks will take credit cards.

If you have more time and want to have a sit down meal, a member of the Gen Con forums, Sherilyn, compiled this fantastic Google Map of all the local restaurants. It can be viewed on most smartphones, and is worth a bookmark! Not only does it have “old standard” type of places like Fogo De Chao and Buca Di Beppo, but also local pubs and the closest grocery stores and pharmacies. Also keep an eye on the Gen Con Twitter feed for businesses that are offering deals, discounts and free goodies. When in doubt, make a reservation and plan ahead. If there is a place that is on your radar to eat at on a given day, watch for Happy Hour specials, and note the times when these start, and have an alternate in mind. It’s always a smart idea to avoid the “dinner rush” hours of 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and try to eat later or earlier to get around the crowds. When in doubt, call for carry out. (Editor’s note: Steak ‘N Shake at 101 W Maryland is always a popular destination because it’s close, cheap and one of the few downtown places open 24 hours.)

Some quick picks:

  • McCormick and Schmicks (110 N Illinois): I suggested this in my Minneapolis Travel guide as one of the best happy hours in town there. I can’t vouch that Indianapolis has the same menu, but if it has something similar, expect tasty food and generous portions for cheap.
  • Circle Center Mall (49 W Maryland): Connected to several hotels by skywalk, this mall has a decent food court with some of the basics. A&W, Chick-fil-A, Panera, Subway all were there according to my web research. If your group can’t decide what to eat, this is close enough to please everyone in your party for reasonable prices. There is also a large movie theater and arcade with mini golf on the top floor if you need to take a break from table top gaming.
  • Claddagh Irish Pub (234 S Meridian Ave.): This chain restaurant has been cropping up in suburban shopping districts in the Midwest in recent years, and is one of my new favorite places grab lunch without getting too fancy. The look and feel of an Irish Pub, and the consistency of your standard family faire (Chilis, Applebees, TGIF), it has a unique enough menu to stand out and has hearty helpings. I recommend the Monte Cristo for the most decadent thing I’ve eaten. Not for those who are dieting!
  • The Ram (140 S Illinois St.): This popular location is always packed with Gen Con attendees because of atmosphere and food. It seems to be a “first stop” and meeting place for many people once they arrive in town, and no Gen Con experience can be had without a stop. They enthusiastically welcome Gen Con attendees each year, and have offered beer tasting and special events for Gen Con badge holders. This year expect a couple of special gaming themed beer brews, including the return of the popular Bombshell Brown from 2011. They also sell special commemorative t-shirts and other souvenirs. Not to be outdone is Scotty’s Brewhouse (1 Virginia Ave.). They decorate with Gen Con attendees in mind, and always offer special deals and menu items for attendees. Last year they gave away free dice with each order! Both pubs are extremely popular with Gen Con loyalists because of how friendly they are towards attendees and how they both always seem to enjoy having a room full of lively nerds.
  • Arsenal Game Room and Café (874 Virginia Ave.): The game store, conference room and café is a long walk or short drive from the Convention Center. They hold an FNM at 7 p.m. if you’re looking to stock up on supplies without feeling like you need to spend money in the sometimes expensive Dealer’s Room. They also serve soups and sandwiches, which might be a nice break from fast food.
  • The Elbow Room (605 N Pennsylvania): A pretty standard “pub grub” kind of place, but rumor has it that they are rarely crowded for dinner. This is likely because there are other, much closer, options. But it is worth a look if you just need a break from the chaos.

GETTING IN GAMING

While some Magic players may want to avoid the chaos of Gen Con and hide out in the CCG hall, there is plenty for a more eager geek to do. One of the major draws is the dealer’s room. An enormous convention hall filled with all sorts of shopping, the interest here comes from the high level exhibitors. Some game companies like AEG, Rio Grande, and Fantasy Flight Games plan over the entire year for this one large event. They bring huge displays, free swag, and often will preview new games that the general public has not seen before. It’s a highlight that you can be taught how to play a new game by the people who were directly involved with its creation!

Many board game fanatics will wait in line early Thursday to be sure they can buy a copy of that exciting new release before it can be purchased in stores. Prepare for another year of quality titles, with my picks for Magic fans being the “deck building” card game Smash Up, FFG’s Android Netrunner and Star Wars X-Wing, the dice/card game hybrid Seasons, and a new Ascension expansion called Immortal Heroes. Just remember, with new releases and exclusive items, be prepared for vendors to sell out quickly!

True Dungeon is a hugely successful event where players experience a massive “real life” role playing game as your team of adventurers strolls through an elaborate maze of puzzles. It’s known by regulars to “sell out” quickly, but it isn’t impossible to find groups that can’t make their scheduled times, allowing for “walk in” participants. For True Dungeon, it’s all about the experience and is bound to be something not easily repeated by other conventions.

There really is no shortage of things for gamers of all kinds. RPG events, demos, board game tournaments, “life sized” versions of popular games, art, movie rooms, and costumes galore. The only real disappointment for some is a lack of a huge video game presence. You can find some lan-based gaming, but tabletop games are the main focus at Gen Con. The dealer’s room usually has plenty of video games companies looking to recruit you to buying their titles. MMOPGs are especially popular, and sometimes will give demos of new titles in person or on free disks. Magic Online also is holding Cube Draft events live on site!

GETTING BORED?

It’s important to remember that we’re not the only people invading Indianapolis. Expect plenty of fantastic people watching and having to maneuver through large crowds. Also be aware that the numbers of people all celebrating in the downtown area will also bring an increased police presence.

  • Red Bull Indianapolis GP is going to occur the same weekend as Gen Con. Expect engine revving and leather-clad motorcycle fans to line the street along South Meridian on Friday and Saturday nights from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. If you’re staying in a hotel along Meridian, plan to possibly need ear plugs to help get sound sleep if your window faces the action. Expect to share space with the race fans for most of the weekend.
  • Blake Shelton is playing on Friday, Aug. 17, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Be aware that this will bring a crowd to the downtown area and could cause delays in finding dinner on an already popular evening. 311 is playing at White River State Park on Tuesday, Aug. 14. If you’re in town early, it might be a fun concert to see to get yourself wound up for the coming excitement of Gen Con.
  • If you’re a theater fan, there are plenty of entertaining options for the weekend. Several fringe theaters are offering plays and performances that look to be aimed at the Gen Con audience. Some titles include Dracula: the Panto, Feed Your Nightmares, and JFK vs the Undead. The play Going, Going, Gone is an audience participation show with some ties to the local sci fi fantasy scene, so watch for possible deals for Gen Con badge holders. It’s also worth noting that IndyFringe Festival is also happening this weekend, with many events just north of the Convention Center.
  • The Indiana State Museum is just a short walk from the Convention Center, and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is north on Meridian a couple of miles. Sometimes the Gen Con participant’s coupon book runs reduced rate passes on each for attendees. Check your swag bag for more info!

GETTING ADVICE

1. TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Gen Con is a blur of lights, sounds, dragon roars, and late nights. People really have a hard time judging just how large this convention is, and how quickly time flies. Make sure to look over the day’s events every morning when you wake up. Plan what you want to see and when you should take breaks. Take only what you need for that day, and add extra time before and after each event you’re attending to allow for crowds and food breaks. Even though I’ve been to Gen Con several times, this is a lesson I rediscover each year.

2. THE CONVENTION DIET

Unfortunately, fast food lives up to its name, and for four days straight it’s tempting to hit McDonald’s or grab a slice of pizza. This will take its toll on your body, so try to be smart about meals. Plan a healthy breakfast at the beginning of the day, and take granola bars, bananas, or some kind of healthy snack to help keep you sustained through the day. Jumping into several Magic pods in one day can make the time fly by (especially if you play grindy control decks like I do), and before you know it you realized you’ve missed lunch and only had a coffee for breakfast. Also be prepared for a lot of walking, waiting in lines, and standing around when not playing games. Your feet will hurt after even just one day at this Convention.

3. BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS

I’ve already said it above, but watch your stuff. It’s common sense in any large event, but moreso when you’re surrounded by so many distractions and 38,000 more people than a GP. The thieves here are professional. The minute you think you’re safe is when you’ve lost your collection. I don’t want to encourage widespread paranoia, but don’t be that person who “should have known better” after you watched your entire collection walk out the door in a crowd of people. I know it’s fun to trade with a new group of people and it’s sometimes the best way people have to get high-value cards … but don’t mix playing with trading. If you’re bringing a deck worth a ton of money, keep it in your hotel safe when you’re not using it. It sounds silly, but you’ll be thankful you did if the thieves are back.

4. YOU’RE NOT ALONE

Remember we’re sharing space with country music fans, motorcycle riders, Indianapolis State Fair attendees, theater goers, homeless people and random citizens of Indianapolis. Be respectful, show gratitude to locals and if someone gives you a hard time for being a “nerd,” just walk away. Each year I’ve gone to Gen Con, I’ve seen verbal abuse slung at convention attendees. Some handle it with dignity, but others have reacted poorly. If you’re going to dress in “convention gear,” be aware it might cause some strange looks. A few years in a row, the Indianapolis Colts held a fan event the same weekend as Gen Con. Lines of Colts fans would be standing in line for their event, loudly laughing, pointing, and making rude comments at anyone who walked by that was “a nerd,” or any girl in a corset. Once I saw a mother and her two young kids openly mock a guy in cosplay as he walked by. The kicker? The mother and her kids all had full face paint and wigs for their event. They looked just as “ridiculous!” Lesson here … be an adult. Treat others with respect and set an example. This is our vacation, but it’s their home.

5. DON’T GO BROKE

If you’re planning on just coming to GenCon “just to hang out and trade,” this might not be the weekend for you. Unlike PTQs or GPs, you can’t just “walk in off the street” and hang out. Every room containing a Gen Con event will require a badge, and this means everything will cost money. Put aside some money and be sure that you have enough cash on you for what you need, but not enough where every time you open your wallet you become a target to thieves. Card dealers will be in multiple areas buying collections and staple cards for cash at Gen Con. Make sure you have only what you need in your wallet and don’t bring any credit cards that you would normally label as an emergency use card. This will be an expensive weekend, so plan it as if you would any vacation. Hotel, gas money, cab fair, food, beverages, convention badge, tickets, Dealers Room goodies… make a list of what you’re spending and plan for needing extra.

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